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Mobile emergency alerts - The next generation of alerting citizens

by Corissa MacDonald
in Emergency Services, ONLINE FEATURE, Technology

Mobile phones are taking over as the leading device used to get information. And, with millions of Canadians using their mobile phones for social media, email, banking, and more, it appears the public would benefit from an emergency text message alert system. But, is an emergency text alert a realistic option for all communities?

Emergency alert systems are – and will always be –  vital to every municipality’s emergency response plan. Traditionally, alerts were publicly broadcasted through radio, television, and sirens. They still are today; but, with technology constantly evolving, emergency alert systems are able to reach more people, in a faster time. Alert Ready, for example, is Canada’s “national cleaning house” for alerts that provide citizens with critical information in real time through its partnerships with Climate Change Canada; the Weather Network; the broadcasting industry; and federal, provincial, and territorial emergency managements officials.

Alerting services vary between each province and territory. For example, Saskatchewan has a province-wide alert system called SaskAlert that incorporates three different categories of emergency alerts: Environment Canada, Government of Saskatchewan, and Local Governing Jurisdictions. Although there are provincial alert systems in place across Canada, some municipalities are beginning to branch out and implement their own local emergency alert systems.

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Hawaii recently raised awareness on the process of alerting the public to an emergency situation after it accidentally sent a false missile-alert earlier this year. A text message was sent to thousands of the island’s residents, causing panic for roughly 30 minutes before it was communicated that the alert was false, and a mistake. It’s clear that municipalities would need to exercise care in introducing this service as mistake alerts and non-emergency alerts would quickly cause people to lose trust in the accuracy and urgency of the messages.

Victoria, B.C. recently experienced the threat of a potential tsunami and was on the verge of evacuation. Typically, Victoria’s major emergency alerts are broadcasted throughout the area by radio, television, and loud sirens. This time, however, a new type of alert was used through their Vic-Alert system: a text message sent straight to the mobile phones of citizens who signed up for the service. While many residents did wake from the message notification, others stated that they did not hear their phone go off – or that their device was turned off.

“We have the luxury of resources to take a more targeted approach,” Lisa Helps, Mayor of Victoria, told CBC Radio. “That’s the kind of emergency management plan I think is effective: safe and orderly, not a siren ringing and 80,000 people running to goodness knows where.”

Calgary, AB also expects to implement an emergency alert system through its citizens’ phones by April 2018. “This is something that we have been lobbying for, for a long time, and we are excited,” said Tom Sampson, Chief of the Calgary Emergency Management Agency. Unlike Victoria’s subscription-based alert system, Calgary would alert every mobile device in the city that’s in service. For example, both a life-long Calgary resident and someone visiting from another province or county (who has cellular service) would receive a tornado warning text message.

As more and more municipalities make the move to implementing such measures, it will be important to consider the following questions: Should residents have the option to subscribe to a text message alert service or should there be an area-wide, automatic push message sent to every device that’s in service? Should there be a geographic-specific emergency alert system – for example, if there was an issue in a certain area of a city, would only the people in that area / people entering that area be notified of that threat? (This targeted, geographic approach would only alert those in danger of the threat and prevent large-scale panic for those not in harm’s way.)

To effectively communicate with the public, it is essential that emergency text message alerts:

  • identify the threat or danger, with a short and direct description of the situation;
  • clearly communicate the next steps that people need to take in order to stay safe and informed (e.g., evacuate, take shelter, avoid a certain area, etc.); and
  • include a follow-up message – an additional alert that notifies residents when it is safe, or if circumstances change and another action is required.

Although sending emergency alerts straight to a mobile phone is an innovative and targeted way to notify the public of danger, other methods cannot be retired from use. Yes, the majority of citizens have access to – and regularly use – a cell phone, but, many citizens do not. Those people will rely on sirens and publicly broadcasted alerts. Text message alerts will more than likely become a popular addition to many municipalities’ emergency alerting systems, but it can only be that – an addition.  MW

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